Profile: Bill Moggridge

As the Godfather of interactivity, deisgner of the first laptop and co-founder of Ideo, Bill Moggridge would be forgiven for putting his feet up. Instead he has been busy on his latest project.

We could be excused for describing British designer Bill Moggridge as a man with his head in the clouds. After all, the veteran co-founder of Ideo lives these days in a spectacular self-built studio-home in the misty hills above San Francisco, so high up, it is halfway to heaven.

But Moggridge very much has his feet on the ground, as the record of achievement of this Royal Designer suggests. His Modernist mountain perch is, instead, symbolic of a man who has been at the top of his profession for as long as anyone can remember.

This week, Moggridge celebrates the publication of his long-awaited book on the origins, principles and pioneers of interaction design – a discipline that he himself did much to define as the designer of the world’s first laptop computer in 1981.

He attributes his enduring interest in exploring interactions with electronic products and services to that early laptop project for GRiD Systems, as a well as a less successful encounter around the same time with a Japanese digital watch, with built-in radio and alarm clock, that drove him crazy.

The book, Designing Interactions, has been a labour of love in recent years – Moggridge wrote every word, designed every page and even edited every frame of an accompanying DVD. The result is both a history and an encyclopedia of techniques, based on 43 interviews with the people who made interaction design happen.

Doug Englebert, the inventor of the computer mouse; Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Bill Atkinson, Apple Computer software genius of the pull-down menu; Electronic Arts and Macromedia innovator Tim Mott; they and many others talk openly to him, recognising that his contribution has been the equal of theirs.

The result is a comprehensive volume that is set to become the standard work in the field – a field now arguably more important than any other in design, given how, in Moggridge’s own words, ‘the information revolution has changed the way we interact with everything’.

That he should be right at the cutting edge when others of his generation are winding down to admire the view is typical of the man. Indeed, Designing Interactions very much reflects his personality/ a boundless curiosity, a sharp intellect, close attention to detail and a generosity of spirit that enables each interviewee to speak their mind without an intrusive editorial voice to divert attention.

Only in the final section of the book, People and Prototypes, does Moggridge expand on his own philosophy of design. This is based on four decades of experience, stretching right back to his first job as an industrial designer with Hoover after he graduated from London’s Central School of Art and Design (as it then was) in the late 1960s.

Moggridge set up his own consultancy, Moggridge Associates, in 1969, and a decade later he bravely opened up in California as ID Two, just as Silicon Valley was switching its emphasis from manufacturing chips to making products.

He found himself in the right place at the right time with the right skills, engaging in early garage projects with Apple Computer, Microsoft and others. According to engineer David Kelley, a close collaborator with whom Moggridge would later co-found Ideo, ‘Bill brought a European sensitivity to form, better than anything I’d seen’ to the new generation of computer products emerging from Silicon Valley in the early 1980s.

By 1991, the year Ideo was formed from a merger of three design groups run by Moggridge, Kelley and Mike Nuttall, the scene was set for the world’s first design and engineering supergroup. Ideo has been a global player for the past 15 years and Moggridge has been right at its heart.

He recently sold out his share in Ideo to Kelley, but remains involved in the group with a roving brief to scan the horizon and plot its links with the wider world. Much of his time is spent in education, searching out new designers for the digital challenges he so eloquently describes. He may be a guru, but Moggridge could never be accused of not coming down from the mountain.

Designing Interactions is published by The MIT Press on 8 December, priced £25.95. Jeremy Myerson is professor of design studies at the Royal College of Art

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